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Women in Horror Month: Stephanie Rothman, The Feminist Queen of Exploitation Cinema

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While February is commonly considered to the Black History Month, genre fans have also adopted the month for another cause: Women in Horror Month, recognizing and celebrating the often underappreciated women who help make the genre what it is today. While by no means demeaning the work of men within the genre, Women in Horror Month asks horror fans to turn their eyes beyond just the scream queens and final girls, but rather to the hard-working women who struggle to make great work specifically for the genre they love. Therefore, FANGORIA is celebrating Women in Horror Month by shining a light on some of the most instrumental women to the development of horror as we know it…

One of FANGORIA’s most proud moments from 2013 was our Halloween issue, which featured our Rondo-winning Roger Corman cover. And while FANGORIA is among the many who have lauded the contributions Roger, Julie Corman and their many successful proteges, there are but a few that have sung the praises of one of Corman’s secret filmmaking weapon: Stephanie Rothman. While an icon among the underground film community, there are few in the mainstream film world that recognize Rothman as one of genre filmmaking boldest voices, especially in light of the content compromise she would make in order to work behind the camera.

But to understand Rothman’s contribution to the genre, one must understand the climate in which she worked. With all the accusations of sexism in the filmmaking industry today, one can only imagine how rampant it was in the early ‘60s. Yet even in light of that, Rothman proved herself a determined filmmaker and a voice to be reckoned with, and made industry history by becoming the first female recipient of the Directors Guild of America fellowship after only three years of film school at the University of Southern California.

Yet it was soon after receiving the fellowship that Rothman had her big break, as she was hired by Roger Corman as his assistant in 1964. But being Corman’s assistant was much more demanding than one might think: Rothman wrote and directed new scenes for films like BEACH BALL, BLOOD BATH and QUEEN OF BLOOD, and put her various other behind-the-camera skills to good use, including location scouting, casting, editing and more. Yet while these endeavors were not new to Rothman, working under the tutelage of Corman was a valuable experience, and eventually lead to Corman allowing her to direct for her, making her one of the few employed female directors in the world at the time.

Despite having a pro-feminist storyline and being the sole film in the beach comedy subgenre to be directed by a woman, Rothman became depressed from the belittling experience of directing Corman’s IT’S A BIKINI WORLD. In fact, Rothman entered a self-imposed retirement instead of directing exploitation fare until 1970, when Corman established New World Pictures and invited Rothman aboard for it’s second film, THE STUDENT NURSES. While intended to be a sexploitation film with a satisfactory level of violence, Corman promised Rothman creative freedom to explore important, taboo issues facing women at the time, and essentially left the production unsupervised as he went off to direct his own project.

VELVETVAMPIRE

THE STUDENT NURSES was a major commercial success for New World, and remains a cult classic to this day. But THE STUDENT NURSES earned Rothman the title of a proven filmmaker in Corman’s eyes, who immediately wanted a sequel. Yet Rothman had other plans in mind, and a year later, Rothman wrote and directed THE VELVET VAMPIRE for New World. To Rothman, THE VELVET VAMPIRE was the chance to make the first truly feminist vampire film, with the female vampire lead to be portrayed as a protagonist rather than a victim or antagonist.

While Rothman was proud of the genre-bending film, THE VELVET VAMPIRE was not nearly as successful as THE STUDENT NURSES, and was a critical disappointment for Corman. Much like Rothman’s other works, however, THE VELVET VAMPIRE found an audience later in its cinematic light, and is considered by many to be the crowning jewel of her career: a bold, sensual and unique film with a focus on thematic material never previously explored in the otherwise tired genre. Yet Rothman and her husband, Charles Swartz, decided their time at New World had come and gone after THE VELVET VAMPIRE’s failure, and began anew at Dimension Pictures (not to be confused with Dimension Films), a company run by former Corman co-producer Larry Woolner.

During her stay at Dimension, Rothman was able to use her exploitation experience to experiment in more diverse fare while still addressing gender politics in film. While her best known film from the era is the exploitation film TERMINAL ISLAND, it was also the film Rothman was least proud of, being ashamed at the film’s reliance on violence and genre tropes. However, the film has found new life in later generations, many of whom embrace Rothman’s savage use of social allegory in the context of exploitation cinema. However, Rothman had a much better experience parlaying her vision into her other Dimension films, the comedy GROUP MARRIAGE and the drama THE WORKING GIRLS, even if they were, at their hearts, exploitation films.

In 1975, Rothman and Swartz departed Dimension Pictures, tired of the exploitation game and seeking greener pastures elsewhere. Within 2 years, Rothman sold a script for a comedy, STARHOPS, but the film was changed so much that she had her name taken off of the final product. And while Rothman held out hope that she’d helm a major motion picture, the day never came, as she has not been attributed to any film production since 1978.

However, in the years that followed, Stephanie Rothman’s work has taken on a life of their own as the filmmaker has been dubbed one of the foremost contributors to feminism in film. Despite earning cult success, Rothman has been quite vocal about her displeasure in working in exploitation cinema for her entire career, and often found her reliance on comedy as a way to escape the nastier side of the subgenre. Yet Rothman’s work speaks for itself, and in 2007, Rothman was celebrated in a retrospective at the Vienna International Film Festival.

Perhaps the bottom line on Rothman’s feminist exploitation films comes from the filmmaker herself, as she said something that all Women in Horror can appreciate in a 1978 Los Angeles Times interview: “A Stephanie Rothman film deals with questions of self-determination. My characters try to forge a humane and rational way of coming to terms with the vicissitudes of existence. My films are not always about succeeding but they are always concerned with fighting the good fight.”

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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